Mexico were the 2011 Gold Cup champions, they had run roughshod through the third round of qualifying in 2012 and teams from outside the region didn't fare better against El Tri's "Golden Generation" in friendlies. There wasn't a doubt in the mind of anyone that they were the best team in CONCACAF.
Or so we thought.
Mere months after being pegged as a possible World Cup dark horse, Mexico are in danger of not qualifying for the tournament altogether. They have fired their coach, turned over their team and done everything short of packing up and going home. They are a team in crisis, bordering on the edge of full-fledged collapse.
Enter Victor Manuel Vucetich.
The former Monterrey manager, whose CV is long and impressive, has been tapped to take over Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre's mess and that begins on Friday at Estadio Azteca against Panama. But if it all goes wrong and El Tri lose, it may end on Friday night, too.
Mexico are level on points with Panama heading into the match as the two battle for fourth place in the Hex, not even good enough for a spot in the World Cup, but just a play-off against New Zealand for a ticket to Brazil. Making matters worse for the Mexicans is that they are even with the Canaleros on goal difference so if they lose on Friday, they need not just a win on the final matchday at an already-qualified Costa Rica, but they also will need Panama to lose at home to a U.S. team that already has qualified and to make up what could be a steep goal difference as well.
In reality, and unless the Mexicans are keen on praying to the football gods for days to rescue them on Tuesday, El Tri need at least a draw at the Azteca, and maybe a win.
Unfortunately for them, the Azteca hasn't done them much good this year. The once-vaunted home of Mexican football, where tales of 100,000 hostile fans, lung-shattering altitude and intense smog were enough to win Mexico a match before it even started, has become El Tri's own house of horrors in the final round of World Cup qualifying. They have yet to win a match there, drawing three without scoring a goal and then when they finally did score at the Azteca last month against Honduras, they still managed to lose 2-1. The Azteca, once Mexico's hex over opponents, has a hex over its home team now.
The problems at home is just one of many things Vucetich hopes to fix in his first match at the helm of El Tri, but it is unclear exactly how he is going to go about doing it.
Vucetich has called in a startling six forwards for the match, lending credence to the belief that he will play with two up front, but that forces the in-form Giovani dos Santos out side, and then there is still the matter of figuring out which two to start. Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez has been a mainstay for Mexico, but his lack of playing time with Manchester United has put his spot in danger, while Oribe Peralta continues to shine, Raul Jimenez has been excellent and old Vucetich favorite Aldo de Nigris makes his return to the team. Will the new manager still call upon Chicharito, or is he ready to go away from the big star in favor of hotter players with Mexico's World Cup lives on the line?
Things aren't much easier for Vucetich elsewhere, with a mishmash of older players like Gerardo Torrado and Fernando Arce battling younger players like Jesus Zavala for midfield spots, while controversial naturalized players Christian "Chaco" Gimenez and Lucas Lobos are also on the team. And that in a midfield with few real wide options, bringing dos Santos or Marco Fabian into the picture as wide players.
The tough decisions continue at the back, where Rafa Marquez and Jonny Magallon's sterling play in Liga MX earned them recalls, and maybe starts ahead of the younger crop that Chepo relied on. Hugo Ayala is still struggling to regain his spectacular form of year ago and Hector Moreno isn't even with the team, making it all the more likely that Marquez and Magallon could get the nods with the hope that they can not just hold down the backline in front of newly crowned No. 1 goalkeeper Guillermo "Memo" Ochoa, but also give some leadership to a team that is desperate for it.
Mexico fell to pieces under Chepo. Now Vucetich has been handed the reigns and told to turn it around and if the task wasn't hard enough as is, he may have just one match to do it -- in Mexico's newly cursed home before 100,000 fans and a country read to turn on them as their World Cup dreams hang in the balance.